The political roundabout: Turok exits, but what next for Mboweni?
- Stephen Grootes
- South Africa
- 19 Feb 2014 12:57 (South Africa)
As we creep, rush and shout our way towards those elections in May, the speculation about how parties will do is going to increase. Those predictions do seem to change from time to time but as a general rule, this is nowhere nearly as interesting as trying to work out how certain individuals will do. There’s nothing like a big cabinet post to get you back in the cut and thrust of things. At the same time some people are considering retiring from certain aspects of our politics. A man with the wonderful title of “Reserve Bank Governor Emeritus” may be making a play, while a certain Professor Ben Turok is retiring. Not from active politics, mind, but Parliament. Our political roundabout is beginning to turn slightly faster. By STEPHEN GROOTES.
Call him what you like - he’ll respond to Chairman, Governor, Sir and Mr Mboweni - but Tito Mboweni has always rather enjoyed the limelight. His press conferences at the Reserve Bank were always entertaining, his speeches always had a joke, and his monetary policy comments could, at times, be slightly alarming (like the time he told an audience at GIBS that he was going to tell the Monetary Policy Committee they should consider a 200 basis points rate hike) but he was never boring. Especially if you were a photographer (they were eventually thrown out of his briefings altogether because he didn’t like the pictures they took. TV was fine, stills were not).
So, for some of us in the commentariat, those with columns to write and bulletins to fill, Mboweni back in cabinet is an extremely exciting prospect. Considering the possibility that Pravin Gordhan may no longer be available for the post of Finance Minister after 7 May, it would seem that it might be the post he would take. And consider the other side of the problem, which has only barely been whispered at. Can you think of someone who President Jacob Zuma can trust (and if a President doesn’t trust his Finance Minister implicitly, he is headed for serious trouble) who would be acceptable to international investors? Someone on Team Number One, who is also prudent?
Nope, I can’t either. Which is why Mboweni in that post might make some sense. For someone who believes that it is important to target inflation (as I do), Mboweni’s appointment would also be something to cheer. It would mean that monetary policy would not be about to radically change, inflation should stay in check, and it would be hard to convince him to spend the ANC government out of electoral trouble, come 2019.
For the moment, Mboweni is giving his denial fairly bluntly, telling the Midday Report on Tuesday that he had had “no discussions with anyone” about returning to front-line politics. It does appear to be a fairly direct denial. It may well be true. But there is plenty of time for those discussions to happen. And come 8 May, Zuma is going to have to think seriously about who can take the job. He may feel that Mboweni cannot be trusted. He certainly has never really given any hint that he is part of “Team Number One”. And while Zuma may not really go into deep discussions about economic policy, it would seem that his general direction is probably not aligned with Mboweni’s financial beliefs.
Then there is @Tito_Mboweni. On Twitter, generally late at night, Mboweni has appeared to attack directly certain aspects of ANC policy. While he’s been fairly careful not to name names, it’s been fairly easy to read into several tweets that he is deeply unhappy with issues like Nkandla.
There’s no way that Zuma could have someone in the Finance portfolio who makes public his criticisms in that manner. As a result, it seems at this stage that Mboweni won’t for the moment be addressed as “minister” in the near future. Still, stranger things have happened.
Meanwhile, further down our political roundabout, and as further evidence that it is spinning even faster than usual at the moment, Professor Ben Turok has confirmed he won’t be going back to Parliament. This is Parliament’s loss.
But is possibly our national debate’s gain. Turok occupies a position like almost no other in our politics. It’s not just that he’s an ANC stalwart. Or that he’s been around forever. Or that he is unafraid to defy the party whip when his conscience tells him to (or when he really needs to leave the National Assembly on urgent personal business during a Secrecy Bill vote). Or that he once opened an opinion piece in Business Day with the phrase “as the person who wrote the property clause in the Freedom Charter”. It’s that he is such a good thinker. He is able to really put people in their place, when they quote incorrect facts, when they make claims he knows are not true. He is also one of those few politicians who actually likes policy work.
There are not too many MPs who seem to get into the nitty gritty of which policies will work, and which will not. The fact that he is happy to say in interviews around his career-change that he wants to spend more time on policy may tell you all that you need to know about Parliament (not that this makes us any different from Parliaments around the world). Perhaps the best compliment to him came from Lance Greyling from the Independent Democrats (well, the DA, really, nowadays), who tweeted “I remember debating him and he nonchalantly stated ‘I have written 26 books; how many have you written?’ I had no comeback!” It shows you the depth of skill and knowledge the man has.
Turok is a once-in-a-lifetime politician in some ways. A bit like Britain’s Tony Benn perhaps, someone who has resisted the urge to get more conservative as they progressed through life, and who has thoroughly enriched the national debate through the years. And, like Benn, once he leaves Parliament, he is likely to keep doing so.
Finding another Turok is probably going to be harder than finding another finance minister. His type simply does not grow on trees. Which is why we should savour his public output, and even if we are nasty political hacks, make sure his view is canvassed from time to time.
Our political roundabout is still really warming up. As we get closer to those polls, and the ANC's election lists start to leak (or be leaked by those on them), it's going to spin even harder. Speculation will mount, and become more ferocious.
I can't wait. DM
Grootes is the senior political reporter for Eyewitness News, and the author of SA Politics Unspun. And he keeps himself away from fattening fast food outlets by presenting the Midday Report at lunchtime.
Photo: Tito Mboweni. (REUTERS/Mike Hutchings)